First came the purge of Bo Xilai, a rising star in the Communist Party who fell into disgrace just before he was expected to join the inner circle of power in China. Now a sitting member of that omnipotent club – the Standing Committee of the Politburo – has reportedly been stripped of his main authorities.
The curtain remains tightly drawn around the dealings of those who lead the Communist Party of China, making it impossible to say for sure what's taking place inside the corridors of power. But the noises emanating from behind the walls of Zhongnanhai, China's version of the Kremlin, suggest a remarkable battle for influence that the party's reformist wing may be on the verge of decisively winning.
The drama heightened Monday after the London-based Financial Times reported that Zhou Yongkang, the long-time head of China's vast internal security apparatus, had "relinquished day-to-day control of the country's police, courts and spy networks."
Those networks are responsible for the harsh suppression of pro-democracy dissidents, as well as the Falun Gong sect and ethnic movements in Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia.
The Financial Times article, which cited unnamed "senior Communist party members" as sources, could not be immediately verified, but Mr. Zhou has been seen as vulnerable since February, when he is believed to have wasted much of his political capital trying to protect his protégé, Mr. Bo – even as allegations mounted of corruption, insubordination and an attempted cover-up of a British businessman's murder in which Mr. Bo's wife has since been named publicly as a suspect.
The ferment comes just months before the Communist Party is expected to carry out a once-in-a-decade transfer of power that will see seven of the current nine members of the Standing Committee step down in favour of a new generation of leaders. Mr. Bo and Mr. Zhou are key members of a faction that supports an expansion of the security services, as well as a greater state role in the economy. That grouping now appears to be substantially weakened, raising the possibility that reformers may hold the balance of power for the coming decade.
The only thing that seems close to certain at this point is that Xi Jinping, the current Vice-President, will take over from President Hu Jintao as General Secretary of the Communist Party this fall, and as President next year. Mr. Xi is believed to have been chosen under a compromise between the factions.
"The reformers are the main voice now. But the core question still remains: to protect the state, or the Great Qing Dynasty [the Communist Party] And what should we do when there's a contradiction [between the interests of the two] This issue is still tangled and hasn't been resolved," said Zhang Ming, a professor of political science at Renmin University in Beijing.
While Mr. Bo's fall has been spectacular, the sidelining of Mr. Zhou would have even more wide-ranging implications. While he theoretically ranks ninth among the nine members of the all-powerful Standing Committee, the budget allocated to the internal security services under his authority recently surpassed that of the million-soldier People's Liberation Army. Many believe Chinese President Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao had grown wary of the amount of power Mr. Zhou was accumulating to himself, and were unwilling to see control of the security services handed over to his chosen successor, Mr. Bo.
Tensions following Mr. Bo's ouster were so high in Beijing that rumours spread online of an attempted coup d'état by forces loyal to Mr. Zhou. According to the Financial Times report, control of the police forces and domestic intelligence service has now passed to Public Security Minister Meng Jianzhu.
Mr. Zhou will retain his seat on the Standing Committee, from which he is due to retire in the autumn power shuffle.
"What Zhou Yongkang has done over the past decade is create the perception that China is a dangerous, destabilized place that needs to be kept under control, and that resources need to be thrown at this problem of maintaining stability," said Joshua Rosenzweig, an independent human-rights researcher based in Hong Kong. Mr. Zhou's ministry "had become so powerful that it had the makings of a second party centre rivalling the No. 1 and No. 2 [the President and Premier]" Mr. Rosenzweig said.
Rumours that change is afoot were bolstered by a full-page editorial in Monday's People's Daily, the Communist Party's flagship newspaper, that outlined a path to political reform that depended on "limiting and supervising power" while guaranteeing the rights of ordinary citizens. "Limiting the power and guaranteeing rights have a common objective, which is to guarantee that the people are the owners, which will improve the vigour of the party and the country," the editorial read.
Until recent months, it was assumed that the balance of power on the next Standing Committee would be carefully divided between hardliners aligned with Mr. Bo and Mr. Zhou and a reform wing headed by the outgoing Mr. Wen, who has argued that the country's political and economic systems are in desperate need of greater openness.
Further complicating matters is another rift – one that doesn't follow the same ideological lines – between officials loyal to Mr. Hu, and those who owe their careers to his predecessor, Jiang Zemin.
Observers say one test of whether the reform wing intends to change China – or merely oust its political rivals – might be in whether the security services now behave differently under new leadership. "If this behemoth [Mr. Zhou] helped to create is left to kind of operate as if it's business as usual, only with a new head, that doesn't really change anything," Mr. Rosenzweig said. "It's certainly not a harbinger of some kind of liberal dawn on the horizon."
The same sentiment was expressed online in discussions that briefly flared before the topic matter was censored. "The problem is not one person. As long as the [security services]continue to exist above the law, nothing will change," read one comment posted on Sina Weibo, a Twitter-style microblogging service. The remark disappeared a few hours later.